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Year of release
1997

Directed by
Andrew Niccol

Written by
Andrew Niccol

Starring
Ethan Hawke
Jude Law
Uma Thurman
Loren Dean
Alan Arkin


Gattaca

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Plot - In the not-too-distant future, science has reached the stage where it has perfected the creation of the 'perfect' human being. Individuals who are not genetically engineered are looked down upon as inferior and have their opportunities in life severely restricted. One such 'natural birth' is Vincent Anton Freeman (Hawke), born with a heart defect which will limit his life and crush his dreams of travelling into space. To try and skirt the discrimination that comes along with his standing as a so-called 'in-valid' he illegally pays for and assumes the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow (Law); a genetically engineered perfect specimen who is nevertheless paralysed as a result of a car accident. With the help of Jerome providing DNA samples to aid the ruse, Vincent is able to gain a place at the prestigious Gattaca Coroporation, where he is selected to go on a mission into space. At the same time however the director of the mission is killed, and the ensuing investigation threatens both Vincent's dreams and his freedom.

Gattaca is a very classy, intelligent slice of science fiction. It's a film that definitely seems to harken back to the genre's 1970s heyday, both in terms of its smarts but also the fact that it uses its sci-fi element to try and tell an intriguing and layered story with a message, and not just as an excuse for a series of explosions and space battles. It's certainly not a popcorn sci-fi flick, but more of a thinking man's movie. It's not a film which details and speculates about the far-flung possible future of spaceships, ray guns and aliens; but a film which takes our current society and levels of technology and just nudges them ever so slightly down the line; as the film itself tells us it's set in “the not-too-distant future”, and postulates how our civilization may adapt and change to advances in science.

It is an admirably restrained and understated addition to the sci-fi genre. In fact for much of the film it doesn't necessarily feel like a piece of science fiction. It just uses the sci-fi angle as the launching pad for a story encompassing romance, prejudice and mystery. In fact there's a strong noirish thread to the film, highlighted by Hawke's voiceover, a murder mystery and the use of dopplegangers amongst other elements. And in line with its constrained nature I appreciate the fact that the film doesn't just throw out lots of examples of futuristic technology just to get an easy wow from the audience, only doing so in the areas that are really prevalent to the story. And within the realm of genetics and science the film does a great job at detailing this advanced society. Showing all the little touches surrounding DNA and the numerous ways in which Vincent circumvents all of the tests is something I really enjoyed. I also love the lingo that Andrew Niccol created specifically for the film, a really great glossary of slang terms for this world. Individuals who were not genetically engineered are referred to by a number of terms, mostly in an unflattering and disparaging manner, such as 'utero', 'in-valid', 'faith-birth' and God-child.' By comparison those that have been engineered are addressed with great reverence as 'vitro', 'valid' or 'made-man.' People who were conceived naturally but have assumed the identity of an engineered person to 'get above their station' are referred to as a 'borrowed ladder' or by the cruder term, a 'de-gene-erate.' Oh and I love the slang term that Ethan Hawke uses to describe FBI agents - hoovers. It acts as a nod to both J Edgar Hoover (founder of the FBI) and to their practice of hoovering up skin cells and hair follicles in search of evidence.

I felt that the film was extremely well-acted throughout, even if it's not always immediately clear as a result of the nature of many of the performances. Most of the performances may appear to be rather staid, perhaps even wooden, but that fits in with the conservative, repressive disposition of this world's people. Uma Thurman in particular falls into this category, while she also suffers from existing purely as a means to help develop the character of Vincent. As a result it's quite a tough, thankless role but she does a solid job all the same. And just based on physical appearance alone Thurman is a great piece of casting. With her character meant to be one of these genetically engineered 'perfect' people, her face seems a likely product of such a procedure with its flawless, porcelain-like complexion. As someone who was once voted People's Sexiest Man Alive you could also say the same about the casting of Jude Law. Up until a couple of weeks ago I would have said that I didn't particularly care for Jude Law as an actor, but apparently I had just been seeing the wrong films. First off I was extremely impressed with his showing in The Talented Mr Ripley, and now it was a similar story here in Gattaca. I thought he did a great job in the role of Eugene, playing him with intelligence, intensity, bitterness and a touch of rebellious glee at being able to f*ck with the perfect system. Law's scenes with Hawke are frequently amongst the film's best. And speaking of Ethan Hawke I thought he did a great job in the lead role at building the character of Vincent, delivering a character of great focus and dedication, pretty much to a level of obsession. To realise his dreams he must display a really single-minded devotion and commitment to maintaining his façade at Gattaca, and Hawke does so with a real sense of drive and desperation. Oh and I also really enjoyed Alan Arkin's small contribution to the film, finding him very gently amusing in the role of Detective Hugo. While the investigatory techniques employed by the agents may be very much in line with the likes of CSI, by contrast Arkin himself seems much more comparable to Columbo; a little bit of a scruffy, bumbling fellow who hides his intelligence beneath his crumpled outer appearance.

Film Trivia Snippets - The original title that the film was shot under was “The Eighth Day”, a reference to the Biblical story detailing how God created the Earth. The story states that the Earth was created in six days and that one the seventh day God rested. The film's original title implies that on the eighth day man begin to tinker with their own genetic make-up. The name of the centre in the movie where the children are engineered is still called The Eighth Day. The film had a much-delayed release however and by the time it was finally set to be released a Belgian film had been released with the same title. As a result Andrew Niccol was forced to come up with a new title. /// As part of the film's promotion Sony placed a number of fake ads in newspapers across America offering “Children made to order.” The ads looked so authentic that they actually received thousands of calls from people interested. As a result The American Society for Reproductive Medicine asked Sony to change the ads to make it clear they were fake. /// The original ending for the film featured images of people who would never have been born in this society if we had genetic engineering, individuals including Albert Einstein (dyslexia), Abraham Lincoln (Marfan syndrome), John F. Kennedy (Addison's disease), Stephen Hawking (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and Vincent Van Gogh (epilepsy). It ended with the statement "Of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own." People in test screenings said it made them feel inadequate and as a result it was cut.
I loved the look of Gattaca. Niccol's direction and the sharp, crisp photography of Sławomir Idziak deserve a lot of credit. While Niccol composed a lot of great shots and compositions, what I was really a fan of were the numerous colour schemes that were deposited across the film's landscape. The various filters that Idziak employs do a great job at presenting contrasts between the different facets of this world, as well as simply helping to create the feeling of a slightly different world from that which we currently inhabit. Probably the most commonly utilised colour scheme is a cold blue tinge that is used to represent the scientific side which is so prevalent in this world, creating a real sense of being immersed in a sterile, cold and glacial existence. These stretches also tend to be quite washed out in appearance to highlight the lifeless and emotionless personality of the valids. This is contrasted by green hues which evoke a sense of nature and creation, and a yellow/golden tint which creates a much warmer tone and frequently seemed to be incorporated more towards the in-valid characters. Another visual touch which helps to flesh out Gattaca's themes is its set and art design. The sets and locations feel very sterile and soulless to once again highlight the separation from humanity that is present. And the staircase in Eugene's home is excellent. A spiral staircase, it is quite clearly symbolic of the DNA double helix so obviously ties in to the film's story of genetics. And the scene where Eugene has to drag himself up the stairs shows him overcoming his physical limitations (he is paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair) just as Vincent had to overcome his own physical limitations imposed on him in the form of his DNA. So yeah I loved how Gattaca looked, but I also loved how it sounded. Michael Nyman's score is spectacular; a truly beautiful and haunting effort which has a great depth all of its own and makes for a perfect companion piece for the visuals.

On first glance you may not think that Gattaca and the Sylvester Stallone vehicle that I just reviewed, Demolition Man, would have a great deal in common but they do actually cover some of the same ground. While neither film features the standard aesthetic or tone of a dystopian sci-fi film, both are certainly located in a dystopia all the same. On the surface both worlds may appear to be pristine, peaceful utopias of humanity; but scrape away that surface level and you'll see that for many people this world is not a particularly pleasant or prosperous environment to reside in. The advances in genetics may have created the 'perfect' human being in the eyes of many people, but what it has really done is just make the division between the haves and the have-nots all the more transparent, providing a clearer definition of the social hierarchies. It shows how that even if we were able to completely crack the DNA coding for the perfect human being we wouldn't be able to change the personality and deep seated dispositions of humanity; as a society we would still retain our habits of prejudice except that it would no longer be based on race, sex or religion, but on genetics. As Vincent states he “belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.” The quest for perfection has destroyed individuality, creating an immensely conformist society as is seen in the almost identical appearance of all the employees at Gattaca. By becoming all the same much of the civilisation has lost its soul. It's no accident that the one piece of true art we see created throughout the film is to be found at the hands (literally) of one of these so-called in-valids; a 12-fingered pianist who enchants Vincent, Irene and the audience with his exquisite talent.

Another thing we would be unlikely to be capable of replicating however is the human spirit. History is full of examples of people overcoming shortcomings in their life; whether it be physical, mental, educational etc to achieve great things. In the film Vincent overcomes his genetic weaknesses to live out his dream, despite the whole attitude of society telling him its not possible. Through his own personal determination and hard work he is able to triumph over adversity while people like Eugene are unable to succeed despite being born with erery advantage possible. This world also breeds a mentality of how second place is for losers, a mentality that resulted in Jerome's attempted suicide which left him wheelchair-bound. It's also reflected very evidently in the sibling rivalry between Vincent and Anton.

Conclusion - Gattaca is an extremely accomplished, cerebral film which has a fascinating and intruging premise at its core. It is also a very plausible tale, one we can easily imagine coming to pass before too long, which addresses a number of interesting issues. In technical terms the film is almost flawless with only the odd hiccup in its story working against it; for example the romance between Hawke and Thurman didn't do a great deal for me, and I wasn't a fan of the revelation in regards to the idenity of a certain character. It was something I saw coming a considerable time before it was revealed and it felt like one of the few times the film was adhering to more classic movie conventions.


PS - Just as I was re-reading my review before posting it I began to wonder if I had perhaps misinterpreted the part of the film concerning the 12-fingered pianist. Was he actually genetically engineered to have 12 fingers purely to be a musical success in that he is able to play a piece of music that would otherwise be impossible. Was he actually a valid? I suppose it would make more sense that the public would go and support him. Although there is the poster advertising the concert which had the pianist covering his face with his hands. I assumed this was out of a sort of shame, but perhaps it was just highlighting what people were coming to see; his extra fingers and what he was able to do with them. What are people's thoughts?